News Brief: Va. Gov. Controversy, 'El Chapo' Trial, Papal Trip

Feb 4, 2019
Originally published on February 4, 2019 8:00 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When he refused to resign over a racist photo, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam allowed one caveat.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Northam said, if he finds that he can't govern as a result of this controversy, he will have to reassess. The governor has had several dramatic days. He was criticized for remarks about abortion then engulfed by the story of a racist photo under his name in a medical school yearbook. First, Northam apologized. But then, he said the photo wasn't him. Former allies say it's basically just too late. The previous governor, Terry McAuliffe, spoke yesterday to NPR's Michel Martin.

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TERRY MCAULIFFE: This is now about Virginia, who we are as Virginians and most importantly - how do we move forward? And he's just put himself in a position that he no longer can have that moral authority, nor can he lead the legislature and - to move our state forward.

INSKEEP: So can he govern? McAuliffe's answer is no. Northam, of course, gets to decide for now. NPR's Sarah McCammon has been covering this story. She's in Richmond, Va. Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: You were at this press conference Saturday where the governor was thought to be planning to resign, then he said he would not. How did he explain himself?

MCCAMMON: Right, Steve. It was a - I have to say, it was like a press conference I've never seen before, and I've been to a lot of political press conferences.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MCCAMMON: There was speculation throughout the day about whether he might resign, but word came a little bit beforehand that he didn't plan to. And he walked back his initial story. I mean, within 24 hours or so of saying, yes, I was in this photo, and I'm sorry for it, he said, I actually don't believe I was in the photo. On further reflection, after conversations with family and classmates, I don't think that was me.

But then, Steve, he said - and I remember this; I know I would remember this - because he said he remembers another incident with regret in which he appeared in blackface for a Michael Jackson costume. This was around the same time. He said he was at a dance competition. And he said he remembers that with regret, so he's sure that he's not in the photo. And he doesn't plan to resign.

INSKEEP: But so many questions, Sarah. OK. So it's conceivable it's not him in the photo. It's somebody in blackface. It's somebody in a Klan outfit, could be anybody there - except there was a moment when he seemed to remember it was him and admitted it. Did he explain that moment of admitting it?

MCCAMMON: Well, he said he felt a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility to respond quickly when this news first emerged on Friday. It emerged on a blog, and it was quickly confirmed by a lot of media, including NPR. And he said there was just so much hurt and shock surrounding it. He said he felt shock as well, but he felt he had to take responsibility and apologize. And he said, I was presented with the evidence. It was my yearbook page, for sure. I thought it must be me. And it was even really unclear during the press conference what his state of mind was at that time. But he did indeed apologize for it and take responsibility initially.

INSKEEP: And we'll note that in his second version of the story, he says he'd never seen that yearbook photo in all the years since 1984. Now he says he'll stay unless he finds he can't govern, then he has to reassess. What are the factors that determine if he can govern?

MCCAMMON: Well, he's lost the support of pretty much everyone that matters in the Democratic Party, both here in Virginia and nationally. And remember, Steve, Richmond is the capital of Virginia, and there is business to get done here, not just politics. This is a really big week in the legislature, a lot of key deadlines right now. And Democrats are concerned about how to, you know, advance their agenda. They made a lot of gains in 2017. This is an election year for the Virginia legislature. They hope - Democrats hope to make more gains.

And of course, heading into 2020, this doesn't look good for Democrats here or for the party. So there's a lot of concern both about how Northam can govern and what it says about Democrats here and nationally that he remains in office.

INSKEEP: Very briefly - I guess you've been talking with voters also, right?

MCCAMMON: I've been talking with voters, and I hear really the same concerns. That - I've heard a lot of people who supported him say, I can forgive him as a person, but he just is not in a position to continue being a leader here.

INSKEEP: OK. Sarah, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon.

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INSKEEP: All right. After an 11-week trial, jury deliberations begin today for one of the world's most notorious drug traffickers.

MARTIN: His name is Joaquin Guzman. He is known widely as El Chapo, and he is the leader of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. Guzman faces 10 charges, including leading a criminal enterprise and importing and selling large amounts of narcotics here in the U.S. If the jury convicts him, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence watched the closing arguments of this trial, and he's on the line. Quil, good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How straightforward is this case?

LAWRENCE: Well, I mean, if you just took all of the evidence that the prosecution presented and put it on a scale next to what the defense presented, it's pretty lopsided. The prosecution had 37 days' worth of witnesses. They had a dozen boxes of evidence that they brought into the courtroom last week during closing arguments, including AK-47s and cans of La Comadre chilies, these cans that Chapo Guzman allegedly used in a canning factory that he would fill with cocaine and ship to the U.S. The defense called just one witness and lasted 30 minutes.

INSKEEP: Wow. This is fascinating, first because, you know, cans full of chilies. So they're being shipped through legal border crossings to the United States, and they get here. Second, when you're - you're telling me that if his guilt or innocence were judged by weight, I mean, that statue of blind justice would fall over on one side because the prosecution gave so much evidence.

LAWRENCE: Right, yeah. And I mean, it was - you talk about the cans being shipped in the United States. The ingenuity that was presented over 11 weeks of testimony of creating this multibillion-dollar, multinational corporation, allegedly, using trains and tunnels and ships and planes and submarines full of cocaine and cash - there were wiretaps. So El Chapo was allegedly obsessed with security, and he would tape all these calls. He even had an IT specialist set up a special network for him.

INSKEEP: Wow.

LAWRENCE: Unfortunately, that IT specialist turned state witness. And so the jury heard all of these tapes in the courtroom. And the prosecutor was able to say, well, you heard it from this cooperating witness. You also heard El Chapo, in his own words, say, you know, I'm sending 20 kilos of heroin to you in Chicago, etc.

INSKEEP: Wow. OK, so sounds pretty bad. We should note, also, there doesn't seem to be any doubt that El Chapo is or was a drug lord. He was a celebrity in Mexico. Many of these things were virtually happening in the open. And yet, when you go into court, there is the question - did the prosecution actually charge the specific violations of law beyond a reasonable doubt? So what is the defense here for El Chapo?

LAWRENCE: Right. I mean, this guy is notorious. And he's on Netflix already, so the jury is supposed to have a blank slate. But he's already sort of infamous for having escaped prisons in Mexico. And the defense attorney really just spent his closing arguments maligning the character of all the cooperating witnesses, which was not hard to do. Some of them are credited with over a hundred murders. But he never really said that El Chapo Guzman is innocent, and he barely really tried to humanize him. It was an elaborate explanation that he isn't the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, that's someone else - Mayo Zambada. But again, it seemed rather lopsided.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, we will wait for your reporting on the verdict. Quil, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: OK. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

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INSKEEP: And now let's talk about the United Arab Emirates, where Pope Francis is visiting.

MARTIN: Not just visiting, making history because it's the first time ever that a pontiff has visited the Arabian Peninsula, which is the birthplace of Islam. It is also, though - the UAE, in particular - home to a million Catholics. Many of them are migrant workers from other countries. The pope is going to use his trip to talk about the need for more interfaith dialogue.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope and joins us now from Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Hi, Sylvia

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why would the pope make this moment the time to visit the Arabian Peninsula?

POGGIOLI: Well, he's been invited to a big interreligious event taking place later today. It's part of an initiative aimed at promoting a moderate Islam and to counter religious fanaticism. For Francis, it's another milestone in Catholic-Muslim dialogue that he's been nurturing after the freeze in relations that was triggered by a controversial speech his predecessor, Benedict XVI, made in 2006 that contained a quote that linked Islam with violence.

The man behind today's initiative is Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo. It's the most important center of learning of Sunni Islam. And he and the pope have met several times, and they've established a very good relationship.

INSKEEP: OK. So it's an opportunity for the pope to reach out to Muslims but also speak directly to those 1 million Catholics we just mentioned.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. Tomorrow he is going to celebrate a mass in a large stadium. There are about 135,000 people who are expected, and some people here are already describing it as the biggest public display of Christian worship in the Islamic heartland because, although the UAE prides itself to be a haven of tolerance, Islam is the official religion, and freedom of worship in other religions have many - there's a lot of restrictions.

Francis may challenge his host to grant full religious freedom and also better protection for noncitizens. This is a country that's also been sharply criticized for its human rights record. Keep in mind that out of a population of 9 million, only 1 million are Emiratis. The rest are all foreigners working in this oil-rich federation.

INSKEEP: Well, let me raise another awkward issue if I can, Sylvia. Many people have paid attention to the war in Yemen, sometimes called the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world. There's a Saudi-led intervention there. And the Saudi coalition includes the United Arab Emirates. UAE warplanes have flown over Yemen dropping bombs. Is the pope likely to bring up that?

POGGIOLI: Well, very possibly. In fact, even just before his departure yesterday in Rome, in his Sunday message from St. Peter's Square, he made some of his most forceful comments to date on the Yemen crisis. He urged all sides to implement the fragile peace deal that was reached in December and to help deliver aid to millions of people who are suffering. He spoke about the children, in particular. His words here in UAE were welcomed by the foreign minister, who said in a tweet, let's make 2019 the year of peace. So it's very possible that the pope will raise his concerns about Yemen here again today.

INSKEEP: OK. Sylvia, thanks so much for the reporting. Really appreciate it.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is traveling with the pope in Abu Dhabi.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELENA HAUFF'S "QUALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.